June Jordan (1936-2002). We remember June Jordan, twenty years on
June Jordan appearing in Allen Ginsberg’s 1989 Brooklyn College class here
JJ: (in media res) ….in very challenging situations for poets, I mean by that I’d often try to read things to people on street corners, and at rallies, you know, and at huge church gatherings, and so on. So that people were not necessarily there why we were – to hear poetry, they were there for some other reason, and also if they didn’t like what they were hearing they could just walk across the street, or whatever. But it was nothing about polite.. And so I think you of at that particular historic moment in confrontation with our art a lot of us began re-evaluating our, what you would call “poetics”, if you will, and trying to come up with something, some ideas, that would work fairly consistently. And I think what we came up with was what I call the distinctly black poem, which is not something that everybody black, every black poet, writes all of the time, but it is distinctive to us, and is distinctive to, I feel, the social-historical circumstances that produced those poems, you know, (and) to which the poets were trying to aspire.
One of the characteristics was… I thought that when.. whenever anybody, particularly myself, got into a particular kind of momentum in a poem, that seemed to me pretty.. a pretty good bet that you wouldn’t lose your audience. And I started to think about this a bit and concentrate, and I, self-consciously, finally identified what it was, and it was what I call ”vertical rhythm”, which is what I referred to before – and the first poem that I…(I had written poems that had that in there before, a lot of people had, so I knew what it was) and then I came up with this concept. And what I really meant was not about jumping from one image to another but rather a rhythmical momentum – that the spar, the structure of there poem, the spinal structure, of the poem is rhythm, rhythmical. And (so) you choose your words and go on so that if the reader of the poem as well as the listeners to the poem are both compelled from one line to the next, they have to keep going, at a certain pace. And once the reader and the listener hears, gets into that structure you can’t get out, really, until it’s over. It’s.. which is one of the reasons I wasn’t walking away. Because “it’s not over till it’s over”, in a sense that’s unique to that kind of poem. I don’t think there’s any other poem like that. Most poems, you know, at the end of a line you’re given a unit of meaning first you state clearly. and rhythmically, all you had before was a white aesthetic which would measure… which would mean that the rhythmical components of a line could be measured on the horizontal. You know, like, you’d have iambic pentameter, you’d have five beats, or five feet of unstressed and stressed syllables, and so on. So that’s measuring a line on the horizontal, right? And.. When.. And you can’t do that right?… What I’m talking about is something you start at the top and it’s not finished till you get to the bottom.
AG: That’s how you get the vertical part, okay.
JJ: That’s vertical – that’s right. That’s what I mean by the vertical
AG: As distinct from horizontal measure with a breath stop and the meaning stops at the end of the line. It runs on.
JJ: That’s right. It just keeps going, it keeps going. You have to breathe it differently too in delivering it.. And, I guess it’s.. to me.. really.. the instrument, the kind of instrument that I can think of, that I knew of at the time that I was trying to do this as a poet, was jazz saxophone, sometimes, you know. because of the way that the guy would blow . It’s like deder der de der der der dar de. and you have to wait and just build on this thing until it goes all the way out, all the way out…
JJ: …because, until it’s done, you don’t really know what it is, you know.
AG: Circular breathing.
JJ: So I was saying earlier that in 1973 there was a National Conference of Black Women. (We were all so ignorant of our history in those days, we thought it was the first – Yeah, we had so much to learn. But anyway, we were all very excited about this first National Conference of Black Women (which was of course the umpteenth Black Women’s Conference!) . And for that occasion they asked me to write a poem that would wrap it all up. And I tried to and I came up with a poem called “Getting Down and Getting Over” which was published in Essence subsequently. And anyway, in writing that poem, that was where I.. in… for the first time self-consciously I set out to really deliver a vertical rhythm piece. And I couldn’t figure out how to get started in this poem and I kept moving around, literally, around the house dancing.. And I came up with “MOMMA MOMMA MOMMA/momma momma/mammy” – and I knew I had the whole poem. I just… (I mean, the whole poem isn’t like that! – ha!) But I had my vertical rhythm, I had it, and I knew that that was.. that that was what I was going to hear all the way through, and then, at the very end of the poem (how it lands, so to speak), it says, “Momma..momma/help me/ turn the face of history/ to your face” – okay, it lands, that lands . But you gotta go through all of this to get there, it’s something like eight pages later.
AG: Didn’t Amiri Baraka also have a similar run-on. You know, the meaning going in a continuous rhythmical pulsation to the very end in a lot of his poems?
JJ: Yeah, yeah. So that’s what I mean by vertical rhythm. Subsequently..in teaching it.. in teaching, it’s something that you can learn, this is.. you can learn how to do – people can learn how to do a pentameter of any kind, you can learn how to do a poem of vertical rhythm, but it is difficult, it’s not easy at all because you gotta.. you have to… you absolutely have to test it out loud (I think you should write it out loud too). But it has to be tested out loud because if you hit a… if you have, like a, for example, a cluster of consonants together, you know, like “he dreaded his hair” – you can’t go from “dreaded” to anything smoothly. It’s gonna stop the line, you know what I mean? So all your words have to allow for the next words to come without your tongue or anything else hesitating or sticking in your mouth, or having the words stick in your throat in any kind of way at any time, right? You have to watch that for the sound and to avoid the kind of consonant clusterings that will stop you in a while
I mean, I remember when I was reading “Free Flight“, there was this line “such discourse among treacheries of..” (“discourse amongst such adults as constitutes/the regular treacheries of On The Job Behavior’), I mean that’s very deliberate, I was using those kinds of consonants to make the stutter kind of thing and interrupt the flow of that. which is supposed to be like a feedback (that’s an old poem which reads like that) ..So where you land….the whole poem is.. an activity, no matter how long you read it, and…
So, anyway, that’s one, I think, major development, and also contribution, of black art, I would say, to the whole world of poetry really, that came about distinct from from the social or historical circumstances of trying to hold your reader and your audience and not lose them, and it’s a structural form that caught on, you know, that promises you some success, likely success.
Student: (..Hearing you read today.. It just seems so much more natural spoken. It seems you’d much rather present poetry spoken than having to have that formally on the page and..)
JJ: Well I don’t always write poems that have a vertical rhythm (like that characteristic, or any characteristic). But… no, I absolutely would hope I wouldn’t have to read my work to people in order for them to have it. That’d be deadly. I’d be dead in half a year. So that’s the idea of publishing you know, so somebody else can be… (so) there’s another way for people to get hold of it – (I am thinking of cutting a record, though, because, you know, that’s another way of doing it, just to have the sound). But I think one of the difficulties for my work very often was that, whether it’s “vertical rhythm” or some other kind of.. (musical device, basically, is what we’re talking about for the composition of the poem) – is that a lot of time people read poetry to themselves, meaning silently. My stuff is really meant to be read aloud and.. you know it’s written to be… I write aloud and then I write as I go along. Everything I write, I test it all out, and then I test it in the social circumstance of readings, you know, two other people, see how they react to it, (or) they don’t react, or whatever. So if you read whatever I’m writing to yourself it’s not going to.. It’s certainly not going to work the way I intended it. You won’t be able to know my intention. You have to read it aloud to hear it because it’s.. My final critic is the ear – I mean, it’s just, literally, you have to hear it.
Student (2): ….What do you feel you add to your poetry by reading aloud?
JJ: What do I add to it?
Student (2): Yeah, I mean this question’s been asked of many poets before, and it’s basically if the poems have (a) sound in mind, do you actually have to kind of sing, or sing the page , or test it out, or say it out loud? – and I’ve often, to gain a better understanding of a poet read out loud, read them out loud myself. But I thought you gave such a powerful, what I thought was a, purposeful reading, you knew what you wanted to do and how you wanted to present it, so I would say – Is there any intention that you have in mind, that you.. anything really, other than just the theme and just the fact that you know what you’re going to emphasize when, what do you feel you’re going to add to by reading that poem?
JJ: I’m not sure I add anything to any individual poem by reading it out loud (from my reading it out loud, as opposed to someone else reading it out loud) except accuracy, in so far as, in terms of the intention of the poem – accuracy. But a reading to me is a performance, and there’s a purpose to the whole performance, one that I have in mind, what I want to.. the kind of connection I’m seeking to make with people I haven’t met before. and the kind of information that I think that might depend upon. I want to get that out there in a certain way and set things up so they may be more receptive to this than they would have been if thy hadn’t heard that, and so on, you know. And so, by the time I’ve finished a reading, there are certain things I want to have accomplished, but all of them.. it’s not like each poem.. all the poems together should have helped me to accomplish that.
Student (2): Right, I was going to ask you a question during the class, but somebody had said.. There were two comments said to you. Someone had said that I felt that you had an intention of reading your poetry out loud, that this was not your intention. Somebody said well, why do you identify with your oppressor,. and somebody else said.. somebody mentioned something about you feeling victimized, and I thought it was such a strong strain in your poetry that that was everything that you were against, you didn’t seek to.. you never felt victimized. And the the other thing was you sought to reason with your oppressor as opposed to ignoring him, which in itself would, I guess, be considered an ignorant attitude, or to communicate with your oppressor and understand him, although you could always recognize that he is wrong and (like in the “Poem about My Rights”). And in the poem about the Pope (“Addenda To the Papal Bull”) I thought also (that) kind of furthered that attitude a bit, where it wasn’t a condemnation of the Pope, it was just a kind of critical analysis, like this is where he goes wrong. And I was wondering also since you mention Guatemala, I was wondering if anything you said about the Pope would tie in to liberation theology, and I know that’s something the Pope is against because he feels that it would cause a schism in the Catholic Church.
AG: A lot of questions!
Student (2): Sorry!
AG: That’s a big question (there)! – visions of liberation theology!
Student (3): What would the Pope think about it? – Well, he don’t really want to answer that question!
JJ: That is to say, he’s against it. Yeah, well, obviously, I know, the Church, in that situation, ((liberation) theology,’s, doing…. But it is possible for a lot of progressive, necessary, humane work, throughout Central and Latin America in general, absolutely, which the Pope has nothing to do with, (he’s dissociated himself, in fact, from liberation theology, and from those Sandinista, you know, priests, and so on, who have identified themselves with progressive revolutionary work…)
I was not.. I mean maybe it was too subtle in some..in some way. but the Papal Bull, that poem – (“Addenda To the Papal Bull”) is not.. is not neutral, you know
Student (2) : Yeah, obviously you’ve taken a side ..I mean, its not overly-emotional to the point of clouding the real issue. You’re angry about the real issues is all I was saying. And I just.. whatever..what I said before about you wanting to communicate to the President that..
JJ: Yeah, you see that one of the things that I think is that one of the best ways to attack something is to laugh at it, you know what I’m saying?, to make it, you know, patently as ridiculous as it is.
Student (3) : How many of you picked up the irony of the papal bull? – explain it(please) -Well. you know we want to be instructed. – Anybody else picked up the irony?
JJ: You know what a Papal Bull is? (small scattering of hands)
AG: Oh no
JJ: You see?
AG: An ex-cathedra edict (more classroom chatter) – People don’t know what a Papal bull is? – Well you all think its papal bullshit (more chatter)
JJ : (...Yeah), and its not (just) excommunicating, it could be anything. An official announcement, pronouncement, of the Pope is called a Papal Bull – and it’s B-U-L-L. Now that’s what it is, you know. You talk about.. the Pope issues this and it’s a Papal Bull. But of course, when she uses it.. you have to know that, when you’re listening to the poem. Because we had the bull in the vernacular, in the contemporary vernacular. So the two of them are playing against one another in the poem. I figured that. I figured that went just right over your head
AG: I thought everybody knew what a Papal Bull was
JJ: No, never do that. Good teachers shouldn’t think everybody knows everything
AG: How many here now know there’s a Pope!
JJ: What can you identify? – Any other questions?
AG: Yeah, I had.. going back to vertical rhythms, just one more time, does that draw from in your knowledge, or experience, does that draw from any specific African-American oral tradition – like the preacher or others?
JJ: No, I. well, I don’t think so. Its what .. ’cause my… See, I was.. where I trained.. My most formal training is in music actually and I was going to be a musician and then I, second-choice, ended up as a writer and a poet…
AG: Do you play an instrument?
JJ: Piano.. So I..my.. what I really know is about music, you know, and so, I don’t know, I don’t know, maybe there’s an oral thing here but what I know is I know about..there’s certain things that happen sometimes in jazz – this is like sustinere (something that’s sustained. but it’s constantly changing, it’s going, it’s permitting, and if you cut it any place it’s incomplete, its just…and that the statement hasn’t been made yet and you have to go all the way to the end, you know, to have it. You can’t stop. Other poems that I write, for example, you can take it line-by-line, you know what I mean? and you can say this line means this word means that, or it doesn’t mean anything and so on. But what I’m talking about you can’t do that with this because you have to take the whole thing. And then you may say it doesn’t work because you weren’t able to.. you were not compelled to go all the way through. then it has failed, you know. It lost momentum or it lost your interest, or whatever, something like that
Student: It sounds like the tradition of, instead of..not necessarily the oral tradition, in terms of the spoken word it’s really the music..
JJ: Music, yeah – And the oral, the orality there and the extent to which much of the tradition’s imitating the jazz, you know – that – they go parallel many many times
to be continued tomorrow